Dynamic Force Employment: A Vital Tool in Winning Strategic Global Competitions

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According to the Department of Defense’s 2018 National Defense Strategy:

We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security…America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.[1]

The strategy reorients the U.S. military from a primary focus on counter-terrorism operations to global competition with China and Russia. This strategic competition cannot be won by the military alone, but a strong, modern, and agile force that can rapidly respond to global crises and opportunities around the globe provides policy makers with a powerful tool.

The U.S., China. and Russia in Competition (Nixon Library)

Unfortunately, the U.S. military is not currently structured, equipped, or mentally prepared to dominate these global competitions. Nearly two decades of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations have left a tired force in need of recapitalization, modernization, and personnel expansion. Additionally, the military is not intellectually prepared to dominate a global competition. According to Susanna Blume, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, this competition:

...requires the Pentagon to think differently about the way it uses the military—or what’s known as force employment. To compete effectively against China and Russia while maintaining commitments in the Middle East, the Defense Department will need to figure out how to maximize the strategic impact of the size and capability of the force it has now. In other words, it needs to figure out how to get more strategic ‘bang’ out of its force structure ‘buck.’[2]

The National Defense Strategy plots a course for winning global competition through three lines of effort: building a more lethal force, strengthening alliances, and reforming the department for greater performance and affordability.[3] Though each of these lines of effort is worth analytical exploration, this article focuses on force lethality through dynamic employment of U.S. forces.


The National Defense Strategy lays out a deliberate approach to force posture: the size, equipment, global force laydown, and employment concepts designed specifically to address global competition against China and Russia. The strategy relies on posturing the force to reflect the strategic priorities of the U.S., and wielding that force dynamically to deter global competitors and regional aggressors:

Be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable…Our strength and integrated actions with allies will demonstrate our commitment to deterring aggression, but our dynamic force employment, military posture, and operations must introduce unpredictability to adversary decision-makers. With our allies and partners, we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions (emphasis added).[4]

The strategy goes on to say dynamic force employment will “more flexibly use ready forces to shape proactively the strategic environment while maintaining readiness to respond to contingencies and ensure long-term warfighting readiness.”[5] This description leaves the reader unable to parse the specifics necessary to understand what dynamic force employment means in practice. What are ready forces? How can these forces shape the strategic environment? How can the military simultaneously enhance readiness while also rapidly deploying forces around the globe?

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, expanded on the dynamic force employment concept in Congressional testimony in April, 2018:

The National Defense Strategy directs the Joint Force to ‘introduce unpredictability to adversary decision-makers through Dynamic Force Employment.’ Dynamic Force Employment allows us to develop a wide range of proactive, scalable options and quickly deploy forces for emerging requirements while maintaining readiness to respond to contingencies.[6]

General Joseph Dunford (USNI News)

General Dunford’s explanation hits on three critical characteristics of dynamic force employment: unpredictability, agility, and proactive deployments.

As noted above, the National Defense Strategy directs the force to be more operationally unpredictable. Secretary Mattis, in Congressional testimony, explained the harm of predictable military deployments, using the current 36-month aircraft carrier deployment schedule as an example. “A rotational schedule that allows me to tell you, three years from now, which aircraft carrier will be where in the world is ill suited to a world bristling with great-power challenges. It telegraphs American punches.”[7] Secretary Mattis and General Dunford propose U.S. force deployments should catch competitors unprepared, leaving them questioning the purpose and intent of deployments and forcing them to alter their operational or strategic calculus.

Additionally, Department of Defense leadership would like the force to be nimble, able to rapidly respond to a crisis or move quickly to seize a strategic opportunity. Secretary Mattis provided hypothetical examples of dynamic force employment in practice: “There will be three carriers in the South China Sea today, and then, two weeks from now, there’s only one there, and two of them are in the Indian Ocean.”[8] This example shows how the unpredictable and agile nature of dynamic force employment deployments could theoretically deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, then reassure allies and expand global partnerships via military engagement, perhaps by sending a carrier strike group to visit partner nations bordering the Indian Ocean. The current force employment model scripts deployments months, if not years in advance, and rarely does DoD modify that deployment schedule to proactively take advantage of strategic opportunities. 

Defense Secretary James Mattis (YPG/Afrin)

Finally, based on their public comments and writings, the Secretary and Chairman want to build a force that can be proactively and rapidly deployed to confront China or Russia if necessary and to reassure allies. Unsaid in the dynamic force employment concept is that it enables a rapid transition to combat operations should a crisis develop into armed conflict, as the Department of Defense can more easily and quickly posture ready forces in crisis areas than in the current and heavily scripted force employment model.

Dynamic force employment is a new concept rarely discussed outside the halls of the Pentagon, and, when described publicly, the discussion seems limited to the flag officer and Secretary of Defense level.[9] In July, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group completed a three-month deployment to the European theater, a significant shift from the typical seven-month carrier deployments to the Arabian Gulf and Central Command area of operations. Commander, U.S. Navy Fleet Forces Command, Admiral Christopher Grady confirmed this unusual deployment was an example in practice, as he said the Truman’s deployment was a “direct reflection of the dynamic force employment concept.”[10] Rear Admiral Gene Black, commander of the Truman Carrier Strike Group, explained the strike group would remain ready to rapidly deploy at need: “We’re in until we’re told to sail. We could deploy next week and go right back over to sixth fleet or fifth fleet. We’re 100 percent ready to go, we’re fully mission capable.”[11] Unlike in the current force employment model, in which the carrier strike group knows where and when it will deploy years in advance, the dynamic force employment model allows the Department of Defense to rapidly re-task the carrier strike group, or deploy in an unpredictable manner or location. What is not yet known is the effectiveness of these actions vis-à-vis Russia and China, nor is the cost of the altered deployment tempo on the equipment, people, and readiness of the U.S. military.


In theory, dynamic force employment presents a powerful means to compete with Russia and China, but there are issues that must be resolved for the concept to be implemented without harming U.S. readiness. The first major hurdle is that Combatant Commands are likely to object if they anticipate reduced force deployments to their area of operations. It seems logical for the Indo-Pacific and European Commands to see numerous dynamic force employment deployments to their theaters, but one would expect Central, Northern, and Southern Commands to lose rotational forces in favor of dynamic force employment actions focused on the nation’s global competitors. Secretary Mattis acknowledged this potential problem: “With great power competition and a limited force pool, the decision seems to be to have an operational capability that can be deployed when a crisis emerges…The [combatant commands] are going to have to take their lumps on this one.”[12] Though Secretary Mattis seems willing to manage competition between the Combatant Commands, dynamic force employment does engender operational risk in the losing commands’ regions.

U.S. Geographic Combatant Command Map (Wikimedia)
Second, dynamic force employment can actually strain relationships with allies and partners, many of whom see U.S. forces as a powerful sign of American engagement and commitment. James Holmes, professor at the Naval War College, articulated this risk, suggesting, “[Allies] might fret that irregular deployments presage a withdrawal of that commitment, or otherwise reveal American inconstancy.”[13] The national security team will have to work to explain the dynamic force employment concept to Allies and partners, attempt to convince them of its benefits, and assuage their legitimate concerns of a U.S. withdrawal from the world.
Categories of Forces (Joint Staff)
Finally, there is an inherent tension between retaining forces to enhance readiness and presenting a large supply of what the National Defense Strategy calls ready forces. U.S. forces can be binned into three broad categories; forces forward deployed or threshold forces, forces retained for readiness purposes, and forces that can be made available for dynamic employment. Threshold forces represent those permanent and rotational forces allocated to the combatant commands to accomplish their assigned missions. The second bin, retained forces, are the units the military services must keep from operational deployments, short of a major theater war, to allow force recuperation, training, and other readiness-generating efforts. The remaining forces constitute the ready forces, those units available for temporary or rotational deployments.

The allocation of threshold forces to the combatant commands and the portion of forces retained by the military services will drive the capability of the ready force. Too small a threshold force entails operational risk, while too large will strain the military services and necessitate a smaller ready force. If retained forces are too small, the military services will be unable to maintain or generate additional readiness, but too large a retained force will neuter the ready force. A failure to withhold equipment at predictable intervals will magnify readiness issues. The number, recurrence, and length of deployments must decrease or dynamic force employment will burn out the force, further degrading readiness and magnifying retention problems. Additionally, keeping ready forces prepared for a range of operations in multiple theaters will increase the training required prior to a deployment.

These problems are not insurmountable, but the Department of Defense must develop and clearly communicate the implementation plan, with answers to these and other questions to the services, the combatant commands, and allies and partners. If not, this promising and innovative concept will face institutional opposition at multiple levels, limiting its effectiveness.


Dynamic force employment presents an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the U.S. military allocates forces to respond to crises, and proactively take advantage of global strategic opportunities. Rapid and variable deployment of ready forces can deter conflict and foment confusion and paralysis in adversaries, making it a powerful tool to be wielded in global competitions with China, Russia, and others. That said, there are potential pitfalls associated with dynamic force employment that the Department of Defense must address as part of its implementation. The services must develop force deployment, sustainment, and readiness models that meet required combatant command force allocation, allow equipment and forces to be retained for maintenance, training, and readiness improvement, and present enough ready forces to execute the unpredictable and proactive deployments the Secretary and Chairman seek. U.S. national security officials will need to reassure allies and partners that this new construct is not a cover for an isolationist foreign policy, but rather a more effective means to deploy forces to the right place at the right time to have a strategic effect on the global competitors of the U.S. Finally, service leaders, operational commanders, and tactical warfighters need to examine the effect of dynamic force employment on their commands, units, and personnel.

Tyson Wetzel is an officer in the United States Air Force. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. The opinions are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Joint Staff, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” 2018, p. 1.

[2] Susanna V. Blume, “How the United States Can Get More Strategic Bang for Its Force Structure Buck,” War On the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/united-states-can-get-strategic-bang-force-structure-buck/.

[3] Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” p. 1.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., “Statement of General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., USMC, 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Department of Defense Budget Hearing,” House Armed Services Committee,” 12 April 2018, 10-11.

[7] Secretary James Mattis, quoted by James Holmes in “Jim Mattis Is Pushing the U.S. Navy to Act Unpredictably: Beneficial in wartime, a risk in peacetime,” The National Interest, 31 May 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-mattis-can-help-reshape-the-navy-26055.

[8] David B. Larter, “Is Secretary of Defense Mattis planning radical changes to how the Navy deploys?” Defense News, https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/05/02/is-secretary-of-defense-mattis-planning-radical-changes-to-how-the-navy-deploys/.

[9] The Dynamic Force Employment concept has been explained in detail in April 2018 Congressional testimony by Secretary Mattis and General Dunford. Virtually all DFE references besides these primary sources are DoD press releases or comments from the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, or Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, or other Navy flag officers. There are no articles in service publications or popular blogs and websites on DFE written by a non-General Officer or Flag Officer.

[10] Tyler Rogoway, “Mattis's New Unpredictable Carrier Strike Group Deployment Strategy Has Begun,” The Drive, 23 July 2018, http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/22352/mattiss-new-unpredictable-carrier-strike-group-deployment-strategy-has-begun.

[11] Rogoway, “Mattis's New Unpredictable Carrier Strike Group Deployment Strategy Has Begun,” http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/22352/mattiss-new-unpredictable-carrier-strike-group-deployment-strategy-has-begun.

[12] Larter, “Is Secretary of Defense Mattis planning radical changes to how the Navy deploys?” https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/05/02/is-secretary-of-defense-mattis-planning-radical-changes-to-how-the-navy-deploys/.

[13] James Holmes, “Jim Mattis Is Pushing the U.S. Navy to Act Unpredictably: Beneficial in wartime, a risk in peacetime,” The National Interest, 31 May 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-mattis-can-help-reshape-the-navy-26055.

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